Connection, Learning, Reflecting, Story

Helplessness and the kindness of strangers


On Friday evening I got the type of call everyone dreads – your father has not been seen today. His house appears to be dark, the curtains are closed and the car hasn’t moved. I nearly ignored the call when I didn’t recognise the number on my mobile. I was in bed, suffering from what I had decided was ManFlu, shivery and feeling deeply sorry for myself. I’m bloody glad I answered.

Within seconds, I was out of bed, adrenaline running through me, making calls, throwing stuff in a bag getting ready to go. After the call initially came in, I had about a minute of pure clarity – Right. This needs to happen, I need to call this person, I need to pack my phone charger and switch the heating off…just at the moment I thought I might be quite good in a crisis, I realised the crisis was Dad.. And I ceased to function. My breathing went all to hell and I started shaking and crying…. No longer in charge,… Melting down..I needed back up.

The phonecall to my husband was not one of those you’d get in a “how to communicate effectively” course. A burst of random information, high drama in that he only got the headlines: no dad seen. House in darkness. I’m scared – in between sobs, with a high squeaky voice ending in “I need you to drive me to Fife.”

I am a case study in spreading panic.

What terrified me most was the helplessness. My car was in the garage. I only have the number for one of my father’s neighbours and it is a landline. Joe is not a young man. I was looking for lightening- quick google-time responses, the ability to type “is Dad alive?” into a browser and get an instant response. This was not to be. I was 45 minutes from where I needed to be, relying on a man in his eighties to give me information and his biggest concern seemed to be that the police might damage the front door if they broke in.


I can’t do anything.

I can’t teleport.

Work magic.

Fix this.

Get good information.

The police have been notified.

Twice now.

Brothers have been called.

My lift is on its way.

I can’t DO anything. I have to just BE with the situation. Loathsome state for me. My control freakery meant I was driving myself loopy, raging round my flat, throwing things in a bag: what can I do? What can I do? I found myself chewing my fingers, muttering and furious when I realised: The answer to that was nothing. The best I could do was calm myself, focus on what needed to be put in place and the necessary next steps, then take them.

Next steps? Get to Fife.

The police found Dad on the floor of his bedroom at 5:20pm, having gained access to the house without having to break in. He was alive, conscious but needing medical attention. No evidence of head trauma. No evidence of broken bones. But he had been lying there for a long time. When THAT call came in we were in the car, already breaking speed restrictions to get to Fife. More phone calls to brothers. More helplessness and guilt…. But now he’s alive. God knows what else, but he’s alive.

So now I know what set of scenarios we’re working with. Scenarios that involve being alive. Not the unthinkable ones (which I’d allowed myself to think about). I can work from here.

Arriving at the house, tearing up the stairs to find Dad, pale, diminished, conscious but not wholly lucid…. Thanking the police officers, sharing information, trying to piece together what had happened. Needing to wait for the ambulance and that familiar helplessness kicking in… What can be done? Me, ludicrously taking dad’s pulse, as if I could do anything with it, but just needing to feel it was there – it was… and it was racing…

In the following hours, we worked with systems designed to transport traumatised, sick people from a state of illness to (hopefully) a state of stability & contain worried, impatient, action-orientated relatives:

Bright, kind practical paramedics asking questions about dad’s medical history I was ill- equipped to answer: “he’s a farmer. He doesn’t talk about illness”.

Arriving at A&E in Kirkcaldy hospital to find we needed to “book” Dad in – feeling disorientated about having to do that.

The large, REALLY bright waiting room full of sanitising gel, practical, wipe-clean chairs, no magazines, hundred of posters and a TV running BBC 24 news to keep us occupied.

A super-expensive overly complex vending machine, which meant we had things to talk about as folk tried to puzzle out how to use it.

A plug socket to charge my phone and thankfully good signal to call and text worried people.

My fear of A&E on a Friday before Christmas, assuming it would be full of drunk folk (I was scared and rattled enough. I wanted to be soothed, not on-guard.) the relief when it was a teenager with a broken leg, a couple with a tiny new born and a girl with something in her eye.

Fiona, the nurse with bright red hair and a pretty nose stud, who I towered I over, but who was a Giantess as she ushered us into a relative’s room after 10pm. Her utter kindness when she asked if we had eaten anything (no) and how she rustled up tea and sandwiches.

The A&E doctor who sat with us, asking questions quietly; mapping out what had happened and what would happen next, orientating us through the steps about to unfold. How grateful I was for her clarity and sense, feeling safe in her hands. She could tell us the process – not the outcome (and I smiled to myself as I recognised this is exactly what I say to clients, albeit in wildly different circumstances…or are they?)

Dad hooked up to tubes and things that beeped. How, even though it was a shock, I have seen this so often on telly that it is less frightening than perhaps it could be. My awareness that I had spread panic earlier.

How important it now seemed to look calm and reassured for Dad.

How low key and undramatic the place was – the very opposite of TV medical dramas.

How no one looked like George Clooney.

How the atmosphere changed, just after midnight, as a “serious assault” was reported and the start of drunk Friday night kicked in; how the lightness and kindness of the medical staff took on a slightly different quality as the new traumas came in.

How they moved us up to the high dependency unit pretty quickly after that.

How angry I was with the press and politicians who criticise- my NHS experience is once again bloody superb.

My father is stable and recovering. He seems to have something treatable, but there are more tests to be done, more observation to be carried out. My family has done what it does when these things happen – pull together, albeit in a seemingly raggle taggle fashion – but we talk and judge each other and gripe about different things and are frightened or reassured at different points and remember different things to sort or do and somehow that seems to work. We jostle for being The Best Child. We snap at each other and nudge at each other and check out that each other is ok. As adults, we are just the same as we were as kids.

I decided to blog about it because I constantly say we need to be more human in the world, to show up more, to show ourselves. And I try to practice what I preach. This is not the theory of dealing with emotion or working with an emerging situation. This is the practical. Resilience lies in accepting you hold an illusion of control of a situation and that illusion is important, but flawed.

I needed many things of Friday night: information, reassurance, strength, courage, the wisdom of others, the kindness of strangers, trust, humour, sobriety, nourishment, belief and practical, hands-on support. I was not alone in needing these, but sometimes I was the only one able to ask for them…I’m thankful for my line of work sometimes.

So, for now, everyone is mostly where they need to be. Dad is being treated and is in the best possible hands. The immediate family are talking and sorting what needs to be sorted. We have some days to breathe and plan before he returns home and a temporary system will be in place to work with his recovery. This is how it will go

and in the meatime, what has been ringing round my head is this quote from the Tennessee Williams play A Streetcar Named Desire

“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”


7 thoughts on “Helplessness and the kindness of strangers”

    1. I haven’t had a physical response like that for a long time…. It was scary in itself… I think my body was struggling to keep up with the maelstrom in my head and it just went: woah! Going to have to take your breath away for a minute until you focus…..
      It did the trick. Shocked me back to function, but it was kinda frightening by itself.
      He seems to be on the right path. The treatment and care have been extraordinary. Just. Wow.

  1. I pray he gets well soon.

    This reminds us that we are humans after all. We all need each other. The Doctors and nurses treating our loved ones and even ourselves; We as HR practitioners providing bespoke solutions to our clients whose businesses are in dire straits. Its a cyclic world out there and if only everyone of us would appreciate that.

    Its a wonderful feeling when family members rally round when all is not well. It shows that everyone cares.

    Lastly, kudos to you for maintaining your calmness amidst the trouble.

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